London digs deeper into familiar plays

National Theatre hosts Tennessee Williams and Racine, the Barbican does Gershwin

WHILE waiting for the new season to start, London theater is actively engaged in its favorite pastime: raiding the trunk for golden oldies. And for American visitors, there's nothing quite as much fun as watching English actors assume American accents and inject new life into one of our classics.

Take the sizzling new production of Tennessee Williams's ``Sweet Bird of Youth.'' The National Theatre's artistic director Richard Eyre already proved his flair for Williams with his film adaptation of ``Suddenly Last Summer,'' shown recently on public television in the United States. This time, according to the program, he devoured five different drafts of the play (supplied by the University of Texas) to shed some new light on its hidden and sometimes contradictory messages.

`Sweet Bird of Youth'

``Sweet Bird of Youth'' is not always considered one of the playwright's best; many people believe its initial success was due to the fact that its two leads were played by Paul Newman and Geraldine Page (on both stage and screen). And indeed, it's not easy to erase the memory of Newman's brooding gigolo, or Page's insecure, aging film star. Newman in particular projected a persistent nonchalant confidence.

It comes as a shock, sitting in the National's Lyttleton Theatre, to learn that the character Chance Wayne, as written by Williams, is really a two-bit hustler, a loser who has reached the end of the line. One might even describe him as desperate as Blanche DuBois arriving in the French Quarter of New Orleans. As edgily played by American actor Rob Knepper (memorable in the film, ``Gas, Food and Lodging''), the entire balance of the play shifts.

Clare Higgins's Alexandra del Lago, (alias Princess Kosmopolis) by contrast, is no legend hiding from her own shadow but a tough, take-charge dame used to calling her own shots. Think Kathleen Turner, with a little Claire Trevor thrown in. When she rouses herself from sleep, she not only doesn't know where she is but she also doesn't know who's been sharing her bedroom. And when Chance tries to blackmail her, she turns into a screeching Maggie the Cat before our eyes.

Dispensing with a first intermission, director Eyre then turns the tables abruptly in what used to be the play's second act. Time is running out, and Chance is frantically trying to find Heavenly Finley, his teenage sweetheart. When Alexandra appears, she is so drunk and disoriented that her vulnerability is suddenly exposed. Higgins plays the sequence for all it's worth, but the characterization is so different from the woman we've met in the first act that it's disorienting. Nevertheless, Eyre plunges ahead, building suspense as we find ourselves hoping that Chance will succeed in his mission.

When Chance and Heavenly finally meet (lovely work by Emma Amos), it's too late: Her brother and her father's bullies are waiting to close in. Consumed with guilt over having unwittingly infected her (and causing her eventual sterility), Chance virtually begs to be punished. Threatened with castration, he ends the play facing four avengers who have come to do the job, their torches burning in the night. It's a brilliant climax, but one that doesn't exist in any published text of the play. Nevertheless, it feels dramatically consistent and psychologically sound. Chance Wayne a victim? Why not? With Paul Newman, it would never have worked. But with striking, fluid sets by Anthony Ward and haunting music by Richard Hartley, Eyre makes the play work as never before. Another triumph for the National, where both ``Carousel'' and ``An Inspector Calls'' earned new leases on life.

At another National Theatre stage, the more intimate Cottlesloe, a similar service is performed for one of the most celebrated works in all French dramatic literature, ``Le Cid'' by Pierre Corneille. Born in 1606, the author was 16 years older than Moliere, 33 years older than Racine. Years ago when I spent a school term in Europe, I was fortunate enough to have seen the great Gerard Philipe in the title role; while much else about it has been forgotten, there was never any doubt that the play was about Le Cid himself.

No longer. The estimable Ranjit Bolt has prepared a new translation in iambic pentameter, which dramatically breaks up the play's original Alexandrine 12-syllable lines. But more than the verse is liberated.

Director Jonathan Kent (whose ``Medea'' recently won Diana Rigg a Tony Award) finds the emotional center of the play in the character of Ximena, the Cid's beloved, who faces a virtually insoluble dilemma: The man she loves has killed her father; as a dutiful daughter, she must avenge his death. She would apparently rather see Don Rodrigo dead, even if it means spending the rest of her life in misery and pain.

Susan Lynch plays Ximena with a contemporary neuroticism that is all too believable, if perverse. The only shortcoming of this dynamic interpretation is that the actress pitches her grief so high so early in the evening that she leaves herself no place to go by mid-play. Yet in spite of a more beautifully modulated performance in the title role by Duncan Bell, the production is striking precisely because it makes Ximena's crisis so critical. Kent intelligently recognized that the woman's dilemma is far more interesting than the man's, and as a result, the play has a suspense I wouldn't have imagined possible, in English or French.

In a week of solid productions of classics and competent but not exceptional mountings of new plays, I discovered the greatest pleasure in the most unexpected place: a cinema at the Barbican Center (London home of the Royal Shakespeare Company) that had been converted for the day into a concert hall for a series called, ``Discover the Lost Musicals.''

The brainchild of Ian Marshall Fisher, this venture has quietly become one of those word-of-mouth successes that has turned nostalgia lovers into fanatics, who in any case probably underestimate the skill it takes to make old shows of uneven quality sound anything this good.

The afternoon that I attended was devoted to exhuming a George and Ira Gershwin-George S. Kaufman conceit called ``Strike up the Band.'' Date of the original production: 1927. A bold and fearless satire on the subject of international commerce, the book turned out to be remarkably timeless: A large American cheese company is prepared to go to war, if necessary (and they make sure it becomes necessary) to protect consumers against the cheeses of Switzerland.

`Strike Up the Band'

The score had its share of goodies, as well as some less-than-golden Gershwin. But the shrewdly-selected cast, meticulously rehearsed by Music Director Gareth Valentine, read the lines and sang the songs with so much gusto that the audience was completely swept along.

Daniel Massey clearly relished the idea of an American tycoon; I can't imagine it being acted any better. As for singing, a soprano with exquisite comedic timing named Kathryn Evans carried the day, that is, when the show wasn't being stolen out from under her by one fast-talking, mischievous comedian named Sam Kelly. Major talents, both.

The last two Sundays of September and the first two Sundays of October, Fisher will present Cole Porter's ``Red, Hot and Blue.'' If I were you, I'd order seats right now. Then close your eyes and imagine the Ziegfeld era is back.

You see, in the theater, anything is possible.

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